Shorts: The Vial

A study for me in changing the balance of specifics, and in using the word-blog-story process to generate ideas. It’s probably a bit all over the place, but there’s some interesting stuff in it for a first draft, I think!

Helena walked quickly to the Last Library with three books in hand. She had a few minutes to spare, but no more, and she didn’t want to be late again. She felt each step: she should have swapped her kitten heels for sneakers, or at least the flats she kept under her desk at home. No one ever really saw her feet or her shoes, even when the office decided to increase surveillance of its staff to mean they had to have their laptop cameras ‘always on’ so that ‘colleagues are always available to each other’ – not an excuse to intrude on privacy or take disciplinary action with unpopular employees who lingered a minute too long on their lunch breaks. No, not at all. Nonetheless, Helena felt more at work when she wore her ‘work shoes’, even if they were under the desk most of the time.

shallow focus of clear hourglass
Photo by Jordan Benton on

Her lunch break had only just started – she had time in that way – but the Last Library closed at 1. Not enough staff to keep it going longer. She couldn’t go on lunch until 12:45, and it was an eleven minute walk. Four minutes to get through the security at the door. Should be plenty of time, thought Helena. As she marched onward, books under arm, she brought her free hand to her necklace and checked it was still there.

It was.

The Last Library was named such because it was the last of its kind in the world. The vast majority of libraries were now online, having scanned or translated its texts into the Online Repository, where anyone could sign in and ‘borrow’ books much like a real library, but with no late fees. Instead, you could keep the book stored on your computer indefinitely, as long as you paid your monthly subscription. The Last Library was more a Reliquary than anything else. The last paperback book was sold back in 2051, fifteen years after an extensive study conducted by the Department for Education revealed that most books being sold were hardbacks and even then were for decorative purposes: they were more likely to rot on a shelf than to ever be read. Most people were now buying ‘bookalikes’ – empty shells of books that could serve the same purpose. Bookshops had long shut up and gone online to avoid going into administration, and were losing the battle to the larger, sell-everything players who had already dominated the market by selling cheap.

Helena pushed open the glass doors and was greeted by a rush of dry, familiar air. Whatever happened in the outside world, this place had survived it all. It was a sanctuary as much as a museum. Nothing had been ‘upgraded’ for thirty years. It was still staffed and managed wholly by people. There were computer systems, and they sent email and text reminders when you needed to return something. She walked past the front desk to the one behind it, for renewals.

“This one’s made the restricted list,” said the person behind the counter with slicked back hair from the thirties and a sigh. “Sorry… Helena. You can renew the other two if you like.”

Helena nodded. Dion smiled and processed the books. “We’re up to fifty percent now,” they sighed. “Half of these books will never leave this building again.” They gestured to the balconies above as both of them looked up into the dizzying heights. Dion turned over the latest addition to the literary prison in one hand and fiddled with a feather earring with the other.

“What’s that?” They pointed to Helena’s chest. Her hand leapt defensively to the vial, checking it was okay.

“Time,” Helena answered plainly.

“You mean it represents time?”

“Sometimes I just need a little more of it. This is the last of mine.”

“You could’ve used it to get these back on time,” Dion said, finalising the renewal. “You had about ten seconds left. Cutting it that fine, you’re on two strikes already, they’d take your membership away if you missed it.”

“But then what would I do when I wanted another moment at the bottom of the sea, or in outer space, or in medieval Italy?”

Dion nodded and shrugged. The conversation was beyond them slightly, but they smiled and said, “have a good day anyway, Helena.”

“You too,” she replied and went to sit at one of the reading desks on the ground floor, directly beneath the enormous skylight several storeys up.

She opened one of the books at the point she had left off and read a few pages. The words sang a beautiful tale of travels in South America, and she knew it was the right time. Helena unscrewed the vial from her neck and held it near the pages, watching the light stream from the pages to settle like fine sand.

She sealed the vial and re-read the scene, nodding. The clock behind her told her time was, for now, up.

The glass doors pushed both ways, but they were heavier on the way out. The air was damp and a tantrum of wind had kicked up since the walk here.

Helena pinched the vial around her neckĀ containing her precious cargo and soldiered on, back to work.

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